Ozempic has been making headlines as a so-called “miracle drug” for weight loss, and is a center for controversy in the healthcare field. Everyone from celebrities, influencers, and your neighbor down the street has something to say about this now popular medication and it might be triggering for you if you’ve been on a journey of healing from disordered eating or an eating disorder.
We’ll be breaking down what exactly Ozempic does and why we should all hesitate to name it a “miracle”.
What is Ozempic?
Ozempic is one of the brand names for the type 2 diabetes medication semaglutide. Ozempic (and its other brands Wegovy and Rybelsus) is delivered by injection into the skin of the upper thigh, arm or stomach. It was first approved to treat type 2 diabetes in 2017. It works by helping the body produce the right amount of insulin to regulate blood sugar levels. It also slows down the rate that the stomach empties, which helps the body keep blood sugar levels from rising too quickly in those who have type 2 diabetes.
Ozempic and its sister brand Wegovy can be wildly expensive if not covered by insurance – running between $890 and $1300 per month.
Why Are People Taking Ozempic for Weight Loss?
Weight loss is a common side effect when taking Ozempic because it interferes with the digestive system and hunger hormones. Common side effects include nausea, vomiting and diarrhea – all which often lower appetite and desire to eat.
Even though Ozempic is still only approved by the FDA as a treatment for type 2 diabetes, rampant weight stigma in the healthcare field has an increasing number of physicians prescribing it to higher-weight patients for weight loss even when they don’t have diabetes. This is called “off-label” use, because long-term effects – and potential risks – of taking Ozempic for weight loss have not been fully studied. The Ozempic website even points out (in bold text) that it is not a weight loss drug, and that not everyone loses weight while taking it.
Scrolling through your social media feed, it can feel like just about anyone can take Ozempic for a “quick fix” to change their body. And its popularity is causing a shortage of the medication, which places an unfair burden on those who rely on it to manage their blood sugar with diabetes.
Weight loss experienced is most likely temporary. Since the drug slows down digestion and mimics fullness hormones, as soon as you are no longer taking the medication, your body – and appetite – will return to baseline. You may even experience an increased drive to eat due to prolonged inadequate intake while taking Ozempic.
One last important point: We don’t know the long-term risks as a weight loss drug. But we can learn from history. Fen-Phen and Ephedra are two drugs that have been prescribed by doctors in the past to aid weight loss, but were later taken off the market due to dangerous and irreversible side effects. It is not the first drug to be marketed as a “miracle” weight loss medicine, and it probably won’t be the last. We’d all be wise to think twice before hopping on this train just because it’s trendy.
what are the side effects?
Because it affects the function of the digestive system, many of the most prominent side effects of Ozempic are gastrointestinal.
You may experience:
- Stomach cramping or pain
Gastrointestinal side effects may sound like a nuisance, but they can be quite life-altering. For many people taking Ozempic, digestive discomfort becomes a new reality that itself can lead to increased risk for anxiety and depression. Digestive side effects make it difficult for individuals to eat enough to support the nutrition needs of their bodies, which can lead to malnutrition.
Other serious side effects have also been reported including:
- Pancreatitis (which is more prevalent in those taking Ozempic without type 2 diabetes [*])
- Thyroid tumors
- Vision changes
- Kidney failure
- Gallbladder problems
- Suicidal thoughts and behavior – Ozempic and Wegovy are currently under investigation by regulators in Europe due to new concerns about this side effect [*].
Due to the serious nature of these side effects, and the unknown consequences of long term use, the FDA issued Ozempic a black box warning to bring attention to these risks. Black box warnings are assigned to medications that have potential to cause serious harm and even death.
What Happens When You Stop Taking Ozempic?
Because Ozempic directly affects blood sugar regulation, it is intended to be taken long-term to manage type 2 diabetes. Since it was only approved in 2017, there are no long-term studies that show how taking it indefinitely can impact overall health. There are even fewer studies looking into the downstream health effects for those taking it who do not have type 2 diabetes.
Individuals taking Ozempic for weight loss may be tempted to think of it as a “kick start”, or a temporary solution to changing body shape and size. People may also choose to stop taking Ozempic because of serious or life-altering side effects.
So what happens when you stop the injections?
Well, individuals are likely to regain any lost weight, just as we see with any other diet that restricts intake for a period of time.
Prolonged restriction leads to feelings of insatiable hunger, preoccupation with food, and predicts binge eating behaviors – often making them worse in those with binge eating disorder or who experienced binge eating episodes prior to taking the drug.
The body will treat weight loss from Ozempic like weight loss from any other restrictive diet. Once its hunger-altering effects are gone, your body will be able to communicate with you directly about what it needs, and it is probably going to want you to replenish all of the nutrients and energy that it missed while you were taking it.
While this is a good thing – (your body is on your side, trying to survive the shortage of nutrition!), it probably doesn’t feel like one. It can be especially concerning for individuals who already suffer from disordered eating or eating disorder thoughts and behaviors.
At NourishRX we are gravely concerned that overuse of Ozempic for weight loss will lead to an increased risk for the development of life-threatening eating disorders that could have been prevented.
is it dangerous?
While there is a place for medications like Ozempic in the treatment of a chronic disease like type 2 diabetes, the groundswell of popularity of Ozempic as a weight loss drug is concerning.
We need to call out the weight stigma when we see it. Off-label use of Ozempic is creating (and celebrating) what is treated as a severe eating disorder for those in smaller bodies.
Eating disorders do not discriminate based on body size. Individuals who diet or continuously attempt to change their body weight or shape are at a greatly increased risk for developing an eating disorder. Medications that directly alter internal hunger and fullness cues are dangerous for those in recovery from an active eating disorder, and have potential to ignite eating disorders in those who are vulnerable – as many who have tried to lose weight by chronically dieting are.
As eating disorder dietitians, we view diet culture as toxic and harmful both mentally and physically. We see that Ozempic is being prescribed to individuals based solely on their weight or BMI, which we know does not accurately reflect overall health, while downplaying the potential life-long and life-threatening risks of taking it off-label. We see individuals suffering with severe side effects, spending huge sums of money, for temporary weight loss and disrupted hunger and fullness cues.
The decision to take Ozempic or any other semaglutide medication is one that should not be taken lightly. We feel you should be as informed as possible about the risks before deciding it is what you feel is best for you.
a note of compassion if you are taking ozempic
This post is NOT intended to ridicule or cause individuals to feel ashamed for taking Ozempic, Wegovy or any similar medications. There are some very real reasons why these medications may be helpful for you, and if you feel they are improving your life overall, that is important!
It is so understandable that you might be feeling pressure to take Ozempic when you see everyone talking about it on social media and major news outlets. The pressure to lose weight and shrink your body can feel overwhelming at times, particularly when weight-centric medical professionals are making you feel as if it is the only option.
We want you to know that this does NOT have to be your only path to health or happiness.
You are the expert of your body. You know what feels good, and what doesn’t. We want to help support you in making the most informed choice for yourself, and urge you to look at the big picture in making these decisions.
how nourishrx can help
You are not alone if you are feeling triggered by the swell of weight loss talk in the media thanks to drugs like Ozempic. It is so difficult to fend off the tempting messaging from diet culture when you are in the midst of working to heal your relationship with food.
We are here to help you navigate these sticky times. Our Health at Every Size aligned dietitians specialize in disordered eating, eating disorders, and intuitive eating. We are here to help you thrive. Schedule a call with us to learn how we can best support you today.